COLUMN: Re-thinking U.S.-China relations

Mon Nov 19, 2012 12:23pm EST

By Nina Hachigian

NEW YORK Nov 19 (Reuters) - The United States and China have been searching for a new way to frame their relationship. President Barack Obama's trip this week to Southeast Asia, the focus of much U.S-Chinese tension, reminds us that with new leadership now set in both countries, it is time for them to carry on with that important task.

The new head of China's Communist Party Xi Jinping called for a "new type of great power relationship" when he visited Washington last spring. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that Washington and Beijing "are trying to do something that is historically unprecedented, to write a new answer to the age-old question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet."

Obama's China policy has been successful in securing U.S. interests. What's missing, however, is the two nations' shared understanding of how they can co-exist in peace decades into the future.

Instead, many Americans envision a stronger, more aggressive China that Washington may need to confront. Many Chinese, meanwhile, fear a United States that will seek to preserve its waning power by lashing out.

As China grows stronger, uncertainty about what will come next in the bilateral relationship may only increase.

When Obama's foreign policy team takes the helm in January 2013, it needs to work with Chinese leaders to develop a clear vision for their future relationship.

There is a solution. The vision the two countries could adopt is close at hand: The established superpower and the fast-rising power, along with other nations, embedded in a web of common rules, norms and institutions that channel their competition and bound their rivalry. Many rules already govern state action - like those for intellectual property protection, and the international community is developing others, like those to reduce mercury in the atmosphere. Some rules are still elusive - such as those to govern weapons in space.

U.S. leaders have regularly taken China to task for not following international rules on trade, human rights and maritime law, and not being a "responsible stakeholder" by, for example, blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions designed to halt the crisis in Syria.

The Obama administration has also often defended the important role of international rules and institutions. What it has not done, however, is draw explicit connections between the international system of rules, Beijing's attitude toward it and the future of the U.S.-China relationship.

The administration should make the case that the peaceful future of the U.S.-China relationship depends on both sides' working within the international system of rules and institutions, whether it be on trade, taxes or territorial disputes.

The international architecture of these rules can draw boundaries around the two nation's natural rivalry. It helps manage areas of competition when each side is assured that the rules are fair and followed. Forums for dispute resolution - such as the one in the World Trade Organization- can ease frictions. Collaboration is easier when both countries know that they are shouldering a fair share of the burden, along with other nations.

This re-imagining of the relationship should appeal to China. The rhetoric of Beijing's top leaders is heavy with references to abiding by international rules and becoming a good global citizen. China's trajectory in joining the international system since the early 1970s is impressive - though incomplete.

What the rules-based framework offers China is a stable, constructive vision of the U.S.-China relationship that does not depend on the demise of the Chinese Communist Party. A stable bilateral relationship is still critical to Beijing's domestic goals. A rules based U.S.-China relationship could also ease the worries of China's neighbors about the assertive way Beijing is defending its interests, including territorial claims.

One sticking point for China will be: Who make the rules? But U.S. and other diplomats are learning everyday about how Beijing wants to play in the international system and what it takes to bring China on board. Beijing can have a hand in making the rules without wrecking established norms. For example, China was a ground-floor member of the new Financial Stability Board, formed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and has helped craft rules limiting banks' risky behavior.

The state of the U.S.-China relationship today provides a good argument for the need of a new rule-based frame. The areas most susceptible to misperceptions and escalating frictions are those where no common rules apply - like cyber-attacks and maritime activity in the South China Sea.

With trade, on the other hand, the U.S. and China compete and bicker - but the disputes are limited to questions of whether the other side is following the rules and the fury is contained (except during election season) within a neutral World Trade Organization process.

This is not a call for a G-2 in which Washington and Beijing alone decide major international questions. China is not the only pivotal power, and this framework can stretch to fit all nations. Moreover, the international system itself has a starring role in this vision.

For this concept to work, China will have to improve on its record of rule-following. The United States has its own work to do- starting perhaps with ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty. New rules are needed in many areas and the U.S. will have to include China in developing them. The case for shaping and then abiding by shared international standards, rather than abridging them as great powers can, will require convincing domestic critics in both nations, but a second-term US president and firmly installed Chinese leaders should have the leeway they need to chart a new course.

It will not be easy for either country - suspicions will continue, tensions will flare and progress will be slow. It's a diplomacy of decades, not news cycles.

But it's a better alternative than the current path.